Daring to Bare Their Beach Bodies
For trans individuals, swimsuit season brings hopes and fears
By Dawn Ennis
Her first bikini wasn’t even hers.
A substantial but still comparatively skimpy white, pink and gray patterned two-piece swimsuit, it had actually once belonged to her teenage daughter, who outgrew it as the girl matured. Now, it was a perfect fit.
She wore it to the community pool for the first time in the summer of 2019. This big step followed 12 months of exercise, dieting and mental preparation for the surgery that finally resulted in a body that best matched the ideal image she’d spent decades imagining.
At long last, here she was, in her bikini. Nobody gave her even a second look, which is exactly all she could hope for. Just another middle-aged woman at the pool.
I was that woman.
Ask me if I’ll dare to do that again this summer after spending spring binging Netflix, polishing off pints of Ben & Jerry’s and emptying entire bags of Cheetos, and the answer will be NO.
But even before anyone ever heard the phrase “social distancing,” there were few women on Earth who hadn’t agonized over the summer ritual of shopping for, trying on, buying, squeezing back into, peeling off, and having to somehow put back on a bathing suit. We don’t come in “one size fits all,” and for the majority of us, our busts, hips, tummies and torsos do not fit supermodel proportions, in contrast to what the designers of swimsuits seem to think.
For transgender people, there are even more considerations when it comes to swimwear. For trans men who haven’t had top surgery, binding is a must, meaning the compression of breasts. It’s not only constraining; it can make even simple movement an exhausting burden and can be dangerous for those with respiratory illnesses. For pre-op trans women, tucking is mandatory, painful, and not foolproof. Embarrassment is the least bad result of a bad tucking job and can potentially lead to crimes of violence.
But even for trans folks who have had gender confirmation surgery, it can be a nightmare finding a suit that fits a body that was once indicative of another gender expression. Cross-sex hormones help to a large degree, giving trans men thicker, coarser body hair, including chest and facial hair. And surgeons are more skilled than ever at contouring the trans male chest. Also, baggy swim trunks do a lot to hide the hips that are telltale signs someone once identified as female.
For post-op trans women like me, there are different issues: while hormone therapy helps redistribute fat to create curves, develop breasts, soften skin and lighten body hair, older transitioners find some features are harder if not impossible to eliminate. Bone structure, Adam’s apples, facial hair, broad shoulders, and larger than typically female extremities like hands and feet are the secondary sex characteristics that can betray a transgender woman – not just at the beach or the pool, but anywhere in public. Surgery and laser hair removal or electrolysis can address some of these issues, provided there’s generous health insurance or a hefty bank account to cover those significant expenses.
But getting the biggest breast implants will only make things worse in the changing room, when the bust/waist/hip measurements don’t comport to the usual female dimensions.
Connecticut VOICE asked more than two dozen trans people from Connecticut and across the country to share their experiences with swimwear, and to specifically address whether spending their spring season in isolation, wasting weeks between workouts, would impact their summer plans for hitting the surf or lounging by the pool in a bathing suit. Here are some of their insights:
Layne Alexander Gianakos, a 26-year-old trans man from Wallingford, works as a healthcare social services manager. “The important thing is you’re comfortable,” he says. “I think once we can go out in public again, we will all be so happy to enjoy being out and the nice weather that it won’t matter, even if we’re usually self-conscious.”
“I have a one-piece,” says Karin Samatha, 50, of Fairfield County, who will celebrate three years of marriage this fall to Michelle Paula Donovan. “As far as losing weight, Michelle and I don’t go to the beach that often. Next year,” she says, “that will be a different story.”
Jaime Fernandez of Greater Hartford, 43, says she was “not sure about buying that one piece … even though I’ve lost weight. Might not go to the beach…”
“One day I’m going to wear a bikini,” tweeted Melody Maia Monet, a YouTube personality in Orlando, Fla. “I want to know what that feels like, to have that kind of body confidence before I die. I might be 80 when it happens, but it will happen.” She followed that tweet with one showing off the bikini she’s hoping to wear someday.
Melody Mitchell of Arkansas is 44 and one of the heroes of the coronavirus crisis, who crisscrossed the country delivering goods. Her job typically requires hours behind the wheel, with temptations of unhealthy food choices and few opportunities to exercise. But this summer, Mitchell said, she has reasons to look forward to hitting the brakes and getting back into her bathing suit. She also shared some adorable photos from last summer.
“As a truck driver, I’m always hoping to get into a cute swimsuit without the ‘spare tire,’” she wrote. “On the plus side, coronavirus has helped me stay away from sooo much fast food. But, of course, the exercise part sucks. Most well-lit truck stops are great for walking, but many are poorly lit and, frankly, not the safest place to walk. So, usually starvation diets are the only real option, unless you work for a company that pays you to unload your truck yourself.”
Summer is over and it’s already autumn in New Zealand, where Lillian Rose Upton lives. The mid-50s trans woman is a Connecticut VOICE fan and wrote to us to share her story of an early milestone moment in her transition: “First time I wore a female bathing suit was in the pool at Bally’s Las Vegas. I was paranoid that I was boob-, butt- and hip-less, plus my broad shoulders cried ‘male, male, male!’ But, after submerging myself from neck down, it didn’t really matter anymore, and I added a further slice of femaleness to Lillian’s ongoing experiences in girlhood! I do remember not wearing breast forms and being worried that the swimsuit cups would fill up with water and pull the suit down. Fortunately, the cups were pretty rigid, and I didn’t have to worry.”
Another fan from Down Under expressed a common complaint: “One-piece swimsuits are always too short in the body for me,” wrote Robyn Johns-Thomas of Sydney, Australia. Trans women often find fashion that’s designed for cisgender women – meaning, not transgender – to be insufficiently long in the torso. Tall cis women often have the same complaint, but there is hope: Lands End has styles of swimwear that accommodate that body type, and in 2018, BuzzFeed wrote about 21 clothiers that specialize in fashion for women with long torsos. So, solutions abound.
Joy Denebeim, 61, of Phoenix, Ariz., wrote to say, “I’m still losing weight. I’ll be getting surgery almost immediately after it’s possible.” Denebeim’s already paid in full, so whenever she’s recovered and back in her hometown of Overland Park, Kansas, we sense a swimsuit is in her future.
Film and television critic Danielle Solzman, 35, of Chicago, wrote that working out remained a priority, even with social distancing closures. “I’m going to exercise as much as weather conditions allow, but I’m losing out on the Lincoln Park Zoo for the time being,” she says. “But I also don’t go to the beach,” which makes sense since, before the pandemic, “Solzy at the Movies” spent an extraordinary amount of time in darkened theaters.
Solzman isn’t alone. A majority of the trans women who shared their stories wrote about using the lockdown as a “lose weight, get in shape” motivator.
Cyclist and marathoner Karleigh Webb, 49, a sports journalist and Trans Lifeline operator from New Britain, was “still running and lifting daily.”
Rachel Regalado, 56, of southern California wrote: “I’ve been exercising nearly every day since being stuck at home. Yoga, weights, Pilates, resistance band exercises, etc.”
Hilary Howes of Maryland is a décor executive and sailing enthusiast who wrote that her goal was to lose 40 lbs. before summer. “But I’m doing it to feel good, not for the swimsuit,” she says. “I’ll tell you the day I stopped worrying: I was on the beach in a one-piece, because I was concerned about my tummy, and tucking, and everything. Next to me was a woman in a two-piece, and she was fat. She was having a wonderful time with her husband and kids, but I was lying there plotzing on a beautiful day at the beach. I released my body image demons that day, and now I dance like no one is watching.”
That message matched the sentiment of Kelley Sullivan, a voice-over artist in Tacoma, Wash., who sent this simple thought: “With self-love, everyone has a beach body.”